THE UCI'S WORLD CYCLING CENTRE
Procycling goes behind the scenes at the UCI’s flagship project, the WCC
There is no greater validation of a project like the UCI's World Cycling Centre than to have an alumnus win the Tour de France. We look inside the facility that set Froome on his way
The UCI has had many bad ideas through the years,” Chris Froome once said. “But the World Cycling Centre was not one of them. For the first time I was part of a proper team set-up: bikes, kit, a room to ourselves, velodrome, gym and a canteen for all our meals,” he remembered of his time at the Centre in 2007.
While the space-age, silver edifice of the WCC and UCI HQ in Aigle, nestled at the foot of the Alps in French-speaking Switzerland, hints at typical sport governing body hubris, step inside and it quickly becomes obvious that the building is dedicated to sport, not politics or power.
One corner of the complex is given over to the administrative offices of the UCI, where we will later meet president Brian Cookson. But the vast majority houses the velodrome, gymnasium and canteen Froome refers to, as well as a BMX track, workshop, changing facilities, relaxation areas, bike and kit storage and more for the groups of athletes that travel here from all four corners of the globe in pursuit of their cycling dreams.
“All you need is a bike, a track and a coach to reach your potential as a cyclist,” offers British Olympic keirin silver medallist Ross Edgar, an alumnus of the WCC and back as a coach when we visited, “but some of the athletes coming here simply don’t have ready access to those things, so this is a great environment to work in. It’s a beautiful training facility, and an attempt to level the playing field between rich and poor countries.”
FROM SMALL THINGS…
It’s a noble goal, and there is no doubting the commitment of everyone at the WCC towards the aim of giving talented athletes from countries with underfunded cycling federations the opportunity to excel. And the centre in Switzerland is the focal point of their mission.
“The WCC is unique in sport at the moment,” explains the facility’s French director, Fréd Magné, a seven-time track world champion, “although archery is starting to do the same thing now in
Lausanne. This was our vision from 1995, so it’s been over 20 years in the making.”
High performance manager Belinda Tarling, a former coach and educator at British Cycling, takes up the story: “The WCC was built in 2002,” she says, “and it was a vision to create a place where athletes could come to train and have access to the same facilities and opportunities as athletes from richer countries.
“The purpose of the UCI is to promote cycling in all countries of the world and at all levels. At the top level, the way to get athletes to the Olympics, to get African riders to the Tour de France, is to follow a pathway that starts with competition at national level to identify the best athletes, then gets those countries and athletes to compete at international level, and then eventually gets more countries competing at World Championships and Olympic Games. It’s a long journey but the role of the UCI and the WCC is to make it happen.”
Driving such an all-encompassing mission is a dedicated team of just 32 at the WCC – “from the kitchen to the director’” says Belinda – but their influence stretches to all corners of the globe.
“Aigle is only one centre,” explains Belinda. “We can’t accommodate everyone here and not everyone can get here either – there are sometimes visa issues getting athletes to Switzerland – so there are satellite centres in Korea, Japan, South Africa, Argentina, India and soon north Africa. These are great for talent identification and they are accessible for athletes who can’t get to Switzerland.
“We also work with Olympic Solidarity, which manages the money from the sales of Olympic television rights. We’re talking £450m, across all Olympic sports, and federations can apply for a share of that money to run a cycling course. We’ve recently sent experts to Albania, Cameroon, Lebanon… there are very few federations we don’t touch because there’s nowhere else for them to go.”
THE BEST OF THE BEST
As many athletes as possible do make it to Switzerland, however, and the different groups will spend around six weeks at a time living and training at the Centre over a spell of up to three or four years. This requires serious investment, so the staff at the WCC have to be very thorough in selecting riders who really have the promise to rise to the top.
Road coach Alejandro González explains how the WCC’s talent identification programme is being honed with the help of UK company Wattbike.
“We have our satellite centres and every rider who comes here usually passes through one of those centres to be identified,” explains Gonzáles. “The problem we have had in the past was not having a standardised test that we could run everywhere but with Wattbike we knew we could come up with a protocol that would be effective and quick to use at camps of 40 riders or more. The protocol lasts 18 minutes, so if you have two bikes you can test 20 riders in a day.
“From the figures produced in this test we have a good overall understanding of the potential of the rider. We can know if someone is good enough to join our development teams.
“But we have other parameters, too, so for our under-23 programme riders need to be under 20, because we will work with them over two or three years. The idea is
"The amount I learnt about how to train…things you don’t necessarily learn as a junior, was incredible. Fréd Magné was my coach!"
that a rider can join us as a junior and go all the way through our programme.”
The time the athletes do spend at the Centre can be intense, focusing not just on physical training but equipping them with the knowledge and skills to operate outside the facility.
“The time I spent here as a rider was invaluable,” explains Edgar. “I was here between 2001 and 2004 – the Athens Olympics – and the amount I learnt about how to train, phasing training, things you don’t necessarily learn as a junior, was incredible. Fréd Magné was my coach! We want to equip these athletes with that knowledge, so they are not always reliant on us, but can go back home and know what to do. We want this to be a school.
“All it takes is one talented athlete to change a whole federation. I believe that, and I think the way British Cycling progressed during my time there and since shows what can happen.”
THE BROADER PICTURE
Tarling takes up the education theme as she expands on the Centre’s remit: “We see the WCC as a university of cycling, so we have to take a wide-ranging approach to the sport. Yes, we train athletes but we also run courses for coaches, so that knowledge can be spread into new countries, for mechanics, as there’s no point sending bikes somewhere if there is no one who knows how to look after them, and also rider agents and directeur sportifs.
“Year on year we are building, and reaching more athletes. In 2014 we had 231 trainees: 143 athletes, 24 coaches, 42 DSs, 17 agents and five mechanics. We are getting better and better at managing our resources. “It’s a great building, a great environment and something quite different to what you’ll have seen at any national federation. We have every age group, skin colour and cycling discipline together. We don’t work for a federation, we work for everybody.”
We later join UCI president Brian Cookson in his office for coffee and suggest that the WCC is actually the oft-maligned ‘globalisation of cycling’ in action.
“I’m really very proud to be associated with the World Cycling Centre. It’s a great facility,” he says. “It is no secret that I have not always agreed with what my predecessor Hein Verbruggen brought to the sport but this is an achievement of which he and the UCI can be rightly proud.
“Helping smaller nations to develop their riders here is something we’re very keen on but we can’t bring every promising rider to Switzerland, so we’re trying to develop our satellite centres and resource them better.
“There is great stuff going on in Rwanda and Eritrea, for example. Supporting that in Africa and other continents through the UCI is a great thing to do.
“I’ve been saying around the world that Great Britain was a small nation in cycling – one Olympic gold medal in 76 years – until we got the right strategy, the right people and the right resources thanks to the Lottery, and then we got some successful athletes and things changed.
“But you need to build in the development programmes, and I often use the example of Lizzie Deignan, who didn’t even own a bike until British Cycling’s talent team went to her school. 10 years later she was the world champion. There are talented athletes in every country, and if you can find them and give them the right resources then they can thrive. But you have to go out and find them because with all the other distractions around, kids won’t always come into the sport from the traditional routes.”
If every ergo-trainer, in the hands of a WCC-trained coach, is effectively a talent scout, then the task of finding riders in hidden places who can emulate Froome’s success becomes easier. The UCI comes in for a lot of justifiable criticism, but in the WCC, they have a project that has contributed to the good health of the sport.
Left to right: The WCC's director is Frédéric Magné, a former keirin and tandem world champion on the track. He oversees one of the jewels in the UCI crown: the velodrome that is the beating heart of the centre
UCI president Brian Cookson is a strong advocate of the World Cycling Centre and its work in poorer nations